Beth Burger The Columbus Dispatch
More indictments are expected in a case targeting a violent international street gang, MS-13, that could connect members to local homicides, sources confirmed to The Dispatch.
Those indictments could open the door for the U.S. attorney general‘s office to request the death penalty for members of the notorious Salvadoran gang who have been active in central Ohio for more than a decade and continue to aggressively recruit young members.
“It is a group that wants to grow, and is growing, in Columbus and elsewhere,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Martinez, who is prosecuting the case in the Southern District of Ohio.
The investigation is advancing as President Donald Trump cites the gang as “one of the most violent and vicious gangs anywhere in the world,” and as an example of the need for immigration reform.
“We‘ve really never seen anything quite like this — the level of ferocity, the level of violence, and the reforms we need from Congress to defeat it,” Trump said at a roundtable discussion at the White House with law-enforcement officials last week.
The first series of indictments of MS-13 members in the Southern District were issued in July, charging them with extorting money from businesses and people to launder back to the gang‘s headquarters in the Central American nation of El Salvador. Additional indictments followed in December containing counts of money laundering and extortion, plus weapons- and drug-related charges, bringing the total number of members and associates charged to 14. The members are part of the organization‘s East Coast program.
Two defendants face charges of illegally re-entering the country, according to an indictment.
The 14 people indicted are from either El Salvador or neighboring Honduras, and only one entered the country legally, according to prosecutors. Trump announced plans last month to end the humanitarian program for Salvadorans who were allowed to come to the United States after earthquakes in 2001. Before that, the status was granted decades earlier during a civil war in the country.
“At least one of the individuals in there has had temporary protective status,” Martinez said. “That‘s sort of in flux, too.”
John Cronan, who is the acting assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice‘s Criminal Division, said at the roundtable: “The Department of Justice will be surging,” and “hundreds of federal prosecutors (will be sent) to the field, with specific directions to focus on violent crime and immigration.”
Despite the strong rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, the MS-13 investigation in the Southern District began in 2015 during former President Barack Obama‘s administration, according to prosecutors.
“I think the current administration is more vocal about this particular gang, but the level of support has been the same,” Martinez said. “People are very supportive of this case, and it‘s an important one to do.”
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman of the Southern District of Ohio said prosecutors are “not allowed to say what we‘re recommending” regarding seeking the death penalty.
Sixty crimes, including murder and narcotics offenses, qualify for the death penalty.
“MS-13 members and associates in Ohio and elsewhere engage in a wide range of criminal activity, including but not limited to racketeering, murder, attempted murder, robbery, extortion, money laundering, drug trafficking, assault, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, weapons offenses and immigration-related violations,” according to an indictment.
The last gang that federal prosecutors in the district identified and prosecuted was the Short North Posse. Twenty members were indicted, and of those, one died awaiting trial, 13 pleaded guilty and the other six went to trial and were sentenced to life in prison.
“We showed we can do it, and that‘s knowledge we can use moving forward,” Glassman said.
Some local slayings have the hallmarks of MS-13‘s brutal style: Machetes or similar bladed weapons were used to stab or hack the victims. Prosecutors declined to discuss the number, or specific homicide cases, when asked.
The Dispatch reported at least two:
• In 2015, the body of a 17-year-old male was found in a shallow grave in Innis Park. The body had been chopped 69 times in the head, neck and torso, and the upper left arm was severed. On the youth‘s lower back were tattoos reading “North Side” and “Hecho en El Salvador.”
• The body of a 38-year-old male was found nearby in a shallow grave and had stab wounds in the torso. The level of decomposition required Ohio State University‘s anthropology department to examine the remains, according to a coroner‘s report.
MS-13 is the only gang that has been dubbed by federal authorities as a “transnational criminal organization.” More than 10,000 members and associates are in the United States, and they operate in at least 39 other states in addition to Ohio. Federal officials said about 3,000 members are in the Washington, D.C., metro area and elsewhere in northern Virginia.
To provide context, Martinez said that‘s 20 to 30 cliques, or smaller organized cells. In Columbus, one clique has been identified. Prosecutors declined to say how many documented members and associates are in central Ohio.